Paintings from Plantation Island, 1999–2019
UNTITLED, ART Miami Beach
December 4–8, 2019
Curated by Jordan Stein
Plantation Island is a cozy, thumb-tip-shaped piece of land at the border of human civilization and Everglades National Park in Southwest Florida. At last count, it was home to 163 people. The island is connected by bridge to the inaccurately named Everglades City, a slightly larger community that serves as the last port of call for some of the best Tarpon fishing in the country. There's no passing through Plantation Island; it's a dead-end, and Dick Jay likes it that way. The former air safety investigator, private detective, boat captain, and commercial pilot moved to the secluded corner of the sunshine state more than 20 years ago from his native Michigan.
Dick Jay began painting as a way to tell stories about the characters who made their lives against the beautiful and unforgiving backdrop of the Everglades. Just down the way at the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee, a mythical outlaw called Edgar Watson was shot 33 times in 1910. Folks used to play music every weekend at JT's, now long gone. Men in overalls fashioned booze from bootleg sills. Jay brings these moments to life in a folksy, sun-kissed vernacular that embodies his connection with the past and affection for his adopted home. Everyday moments take on a timeless quality through the artist's no-fuss brushstrokes: a dog yaps at a rattlesnake; a pair of white canoes lie quietly on the glassy shores of this or that Bend.
"Painting is something that has become a part of me and that I enjoy doing, just as you may like to ride your bicycle," Jay notes. He's thrilled to present his work to a broader audience in Miami Beach but remains committed to a life outside the spotlight. "I don't want to be more of a success because I don't want to spend all my time talking about art. I've lived a very good life; I've got friends in the neighborhood and keep beer in the refrigerator."
But Jay is no stranger to the broader field of art. Some years ago, the artist began copying the old masters as a way to learn about composition, space, texture, proportion, and more. He is especially fond of the great French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), who colorfully rendered the Parisian nightlife of the late 19th century. Depictions of the rousing Moulin Rouge cabaret, first brought to life on canvas more than 100 years ago, light Jay's studio-like art historical beacons.
After the death of Jay's wife, Marilyn, he began painting her into various local settings—gliding through the water with a friend or enveloped by a rainbow of flowers. The styles and techniques are inspired by Cassatt, Picasso, Pissarro, and Sisley, placing Marilyn not just in Jay's personal history, but also across the arc of art history. Regardless of the setting or influence, she is always holding the type of small dog she loved so much. What's important is that she's never alone.
Many of the artist's paintings are set into hand-crafted, painted wooden frames. Some are adorned with red roses, green vines, or slight color fades. He's been known to remove a painting and custom frame from his wall and hand it to an admiring friend.
Self-taught and gregarious by nature, Jay has transformed his house into a total work of art, complete with painted floorboards, walls, and ceilings. When, in 2017, Hurricane Irma submerged his home in eight feet of water, he ripped out and redid the floors on his own. Then he painted the whole place over again with native birds, fish, and flowers.
Above all, Jay cares about his environment and aims to raise awareness about his particular corner of the world. The draining of the Everglades started in the late 1800s as an effort to convert the wetlands into land fit for agricultural, residential, and commercial development. Despite the establishment of Everglades National Park, the wetlands have been plagued by problems from upstream construction and are starved for clean water. "I want people to know that I live in the Everglades, a very important area that's in a lot of trouble. I hope my work will inspire folks to learn more about the region and help out however they can."
Dick Jay (b. 1930, Detroit, MI) lives and works on Plantation Island. He graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit and has been based in Southwest Florida since 1997.